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What is data processing?

Finding the data you need - either to digest or delete - isn't always easy in an increasingly data-intensive world

Man processes data at desk

It is safe to say that many organisations will process data in some way, but what does the term “data processing” actually mean? Essentially, it is the manipulation and collection of data to create new relevant information.

This can also include the recording, structuring, collection, organisation, adaptation, storage or alteration, consultation, retrieval, use, dissemination, disclosure by transmission, or otherwise making available, alignment or combination, restriction, destruction or erasure of personal data.

Any data changes can be considered data processing. As raw data is not in the correct state for analytics, business intelligence, reporting, or machine learning, it needs to be aggregated, transformed, enriched, filtered, and cleaned.

Obviously, data processing isn’t a novel concept, but near-constant software and technology updates could leave anyone’s head spinning. More technology leads to more data, which makes data processing even more important. Read on to find out exactly why data processing should matter to you and your business.

GDPR definition of data processing

Ever since GDPR was introduced in May 2018, there’s been an important definition of data processing.

As per Article 4.2 of the EU’s GDPR, processing can be defined as "any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person ('data subject'); an identifiable natural person is one who can be identified, directly or indirectly, in particular by reference to an identifier such as a name, an identification number, location data, an online identifier or to one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural or social identity of that natural person".

The stages of data processing

Data processing contains a number of fairly uniform stages, no matter how much data you’re aiming to process or what you plan to do with it.

1 Data collection: The data needs to first be collected before any processing takes place. A number of data collection methods rely on automatic harvesting, but others will be more unconcealed and are based on interactions with data subjects. No matter how the data is collected, it is of the utmost importance that the information is stored in a format and order that is appropriate to the needs of the business, which can be easily sourced for processing.

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2 Preparation: Once the data is collected, preliminary work is required to prepare the data for in-depth analysis. For example, this may require a business to only select the data that is required for a particular task, and discarding anything that is incomplete or irrelevant. This typically drastically reduces the time needed to fully process the data, and reduces the likelihood of errors further down the line.

3 Input: Now that the data has been prepared, what survived the initial filter will be converted into a machine-readable format, one that is supported by the software that will analyse it. The conversion at this stage can be incredibly time-consuming, as the entire data set will need to be double-checked for errors as it is submitted. Any missing or corrupted data at this stage can nullify the results.

4 Processing: Once submitted, the data is analysed by prebuilt algorithms that manipulate it into a more meaningful format, one that businesses can start to glean information from.

5 Output: The resulting information can then be manipulated once more into a format suitable for end-users, such as graphs, charts, reports, video and audio, whichever is most suitable for the task. This simplifies the processed data so that businesses can use it to inform their decisions.

6 Storage: The final stage involves safely storing the data and metadata (data about data) for further use. It should be possible to quickly access stored data as and when required. It's important that all stored data is kept secure to ensure its integrity.

While each stage is compulsory, the processing element is cyclical, meaning that the output and stage steps can lead to a repeat of the data collection step, starting a new cycle of data processing.

The future of data processing

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The way in which businesses process and store data has come under tougher scrutiny since the launch of GDPR, but part of the reason the legislation is in place is that data use is only going to increase.

One issue here is that traditional forms of data processing are no longer able to keep up with the sheer volume of data that is being sent, collected, produced, and stored. This is also another reason why the cloud is seen as the next logical step for almost all types of business.

The benefit of the cloud is it offers an almost limitless storage capability, which is ideal for the never-ending production of data. It's also a perfect solution for businesses that are in the midst of remote working or those that are looking to switch.

Any future cloud strategy will also need to have security at its heart, and efforts have been made to make it far easier for businesses to do this. For example, a number of cloud companies are now looking at adopting confidential computing, which would allow their customers to process sensitive data while maintaining a robust level of encryption.

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